After the first wave of free-agent signings, the San Francisco 49ers find themselves brushing up against the limits of the salary cap.
This wasn’t entirely unexpected. The writing was on the wall for expensive players like Tarell Brown and Donte Whitner to sign elsewhere. The 49ers knew that they would have to spend money wisely over the next few seasons in order to keep the nucleus of their team together during this Super Bowl window.
How can the 49ers continue to manage the salary cap over the next few seasons? Will they be able to re-sign all of their key contributors next season? Let’s delve a little deeper into the salary cap situation and try to figure this out.
2014 Salary Cap: $135,483,783
Current cap number: $130,768,973
Current cap room: $4,714,810
|Top 10 Cap Hits in 2014|
|Player||Pos||Base Salary||Bonuses||2014 Cap Hit|
In this case, “current” cap room is a bit misleading. The 49ers have already cut Carlos Rogers but have designated him as a June 1 cut, meaning they’re carrying his salary on the books until that point. On June 2, the 49ers will gain an extra $6.6 million to work with, which is plenty of wiggle room.
Of course, some of that cap money will be used to sign this year’s draft class. Coincidentally, according to Overthecap.com, the 49ers are currently slated to have about $6.5 million worth of draft picks. This number will change as the team inevitably trades up and down, but the basic gist is that the extra money used from cutting Rogers will be used to sign this year’s draft class.
Therefore, the 49ers will have somewhere between $4.5 and $5 million left under the cap. This puts the team in the bottom 10 among NFL teams but with their entire roster more or less intact. There are no gaping holes in the lineup, and the team is prepared to enter the 2014 season with its current roster, plus its draft picks.
So what could it do with that extra $5 million? There are basically only two realistic options at this point, one that could help the team in the 2014 season, and another that would help answer questions going forward.
It could take that extra cash and try to sign a slot wide receiver. Quinton Patton is promising, but he’s probably the biggest remaining question mark in the team’s starting lineup. Coach Jim Harbaugh stated at the owners meetings that the team needs “a third guy who can get open and make plays…a playmaker.”
Could it find someone like that left in free agency? There are some big names still out there. Kenny Britt, Jason Avant and Damian Williams all played for less than $5 million last season, and players like Sidney Rice or Santonio Holmes could be signed for around that number as well.
On the other hand, it has a huge problem coming up with next year’s salary cap, as Colin Kaepernick is slated to be a free agent after the 2014 season. The 49ers head honchos all seem to agree that re-signing Kaepernick is their top priority.
Why re-sign Kaepernick this offseason rather than next? There are two main reasons. First of all, by attempting to extend Kaepernick now, the 49ers have time to come to an agreement without the dreaded franchise tag coming into play. The franchise tag in 2014 for quarterbacks was $16.912 million, and it’s likely to be higher for 2015.
Secondly, it gets Kaepernick in before the next wave of contract extensions re-defines the value of a starting quarterback in the NFL. Before the start of the 2015 season, we could see players like Cam Newton, Andrew Luck, Robert Griffin III and Russell Wilson sign their second NFL contracts. Every time there’s a wave of new contracts like that, the value of a position goes up and up.
By getting Kaepernick signed now, the 49ers could see him on the team for under $20 million a year. That seems like a lot of money, but that could easily end up being under the going rate in a few seasons. By signing Kaepernick now, the 49ers get to set the market for this wave of quarterbacks, rather than simply reacting to it.
Ninercaphell.com, a fantastic resource, estimated a six-year, $108 million contract extension for Kaepernick, while Spotrac forecast it slightly higher at $118 million. While that’s a bit of a shock to the system after having Kaepernick at budget prices, it does represent his fair market value.
The extra $5 million, then, might be best used as the first part of a signing bonus for Kaepernick. Prorating out a $20-$25 million signing bonus over the next five seasons essentially eats up the rest of the salary cap space.
That’s the wisest decision the 49ers could make. It settles the most important position on the team going forward and allows them to spend next offseason dealing with players at other positions.
Of course, no longer getting Kaepernick at a major discount is going to impact the salary cap down the line. Let’s take a look a few years into the future and try to figure out what decisions the 49ers will need to make in the long run.
2015 Salary Cap: ~$140,000,000
Current cap number: $108,685,695
Current cap room: ~$31,314,305
Notable free agents: Frank Gore, Michael Crabtree, Mike Iupati, Aldon Smith, Glenn Dorsey
|Top 10 Cap Hits in 2015|
|Player||Pos||Base Salary||Bonuses||2015 Cap Hit|
A gap of $31 million sounds like a lot of cap room! That much cap space would have put the 49ers in the top 10 at the beginning of free agency this year.
Then you take a look at the free agent listing, and your heart sinks a little bit—and that’s without re-signing Kaepernick. A quick, back-of-the-envelope style calculation for Kaepernick has his cap number up in the $15 million range in 2015 with an extension, eating up nearly half of that cap room in his own right.
San Francisco does have a little more wiggle room. Aldon Smith does have a fifth-year option on his deal the team could pick up, due to the new collective bargaining agreement. As a top-10 pick, Smith would be paid the transition tag value for linebackers, which was $9.754 million this season.
Having all four starting linebackers in the top five salaries on the team isn’t the best salary distribution ever, but it’s hard to argue any of the individual players aren’t worth it. That option doesn’t become guaranteed until the start of the 2015 season, so the team could either work on a longer, cheaper extension with Smith, or cut him loose if his legal issues pop up again. It’s the best move they can make there.
Ahmad Brooks would be the only other real candidate to save significant amounts of money—cutting him would give the team an extra $5.4 million to work with. That’s probably not worth the cost of losing a player like Brooks, but that is an option.
The big 2015 decision will come down to Kaepernick, Crabtree and Iupati. The way the finances are shaking out, it looks like the team will be able to keep only two of the three. Keeping Kaepernick seems like an obvious decision, making the real battle between Crabtree and Iupati.
Extending Kaepernick and exercising Smith’s tag leaves the 49ers with about $6.2 million against the cap in 2015, which is nowhere near enough to sign both Crabtree and Iupati. It might not be enough, in and of itself, to sign one of the two, though there’s enough uncertainty and potential for extensions that the team should be able to find room. The cost of keeping a franchise quarterback will be letting one of those two walk.
As it stands today, I’d opt to re-sign Crabtree. Yes, it’s possible Quinton Patton and an early draft pick could both explode in 2014, making him somewhat expendable, but that’s a lot to gamble on. A No. 1 receiver is significantly harder to replace than an interior offensive lineman—even a Pro Bowler like Iupati.
The 49ers have a potential replacement for Iupati on the roster already in Joe Looney and could use a draft pick this year on another interior lineman. It’s never easy to replace a star like Iupati, but it’s more likely that the team could continue without him than without Crabtree at this point.
To finish off, let’s take a quick look at the financial situations for the next few years. It’s too early to make any firm predictions on potential free agents and cap casualties, but it at least gives us an idea of who’s set for the next few years, and who will need an extension in the long run.
2016 Salary Cap: ~$150,000,000
Current cap number: $66,344,841
Current cap room: ~$83,655,159
Notable free agents: Vernon Davis, Anquan Boldin, Justin Smith, Ray McDonald, Phil Dawson
|Top 10 Cap Hits in 2016|
|Player||Pos||Base Salary||Bonuses||2016 Cap Hit|
2017 Salary Cap: ~$160,000,000
Current cap number: $48,217,000
Current cap room: ~$111,783,000
Notable free agents: Patrick Willis
|All 2017 Contracts|
|Player||Pos||Base Salary||Bonuses||Cap Figure|
2018 Salary Cap: ~$170,000,000
Current cap number: $20,009,000
Current cap room: ~$149,991,000
Notable free agents: Ahmad Brooks, Antoine Bethea, Joe Staley, Tramaine Brock
|All 2018 Contracts|
|Player||Pos||Base Salary||Bonuses||2018 Cap Hit|
All salary cap numbers from Spotrac.com.